Smith continues his series on the thought of Thomas Hodgskin by explaining his belief in natural property rights.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

As I discussed in a previous essay on Thomas Hodgskin, the purpose of The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832) was to defend the rights of property based on human nature and the nature of society over the legal rights created by governmental fiat, especially as defended in the works of Jeremy Bentham and his many utilitarian followers. We shall first take a look at Hodgskin’s general conception and defense of natural rights (Chapter 2) and then, in the next essay, turn to Hodgskin’s defense of private property in land (Chapter 4).

According to Hodgskin, our notion of the right to property (including property in ourselves) lies at the “very foundation of systems of government, and of theories of political philosophy,” so it is futile to seek fundamental political reforms “without digging down to the very bottom” of property rights. At the outset, however, Hodgskin emphasized his disagreements with those socialists “who have asserted that all the evils of society arise from a right of property.”

[A]llow me to separate myself entirely from them, by declaring that I look on a right of property – on the right of individuals, to have and to own, for their own separate and selfish use and enjoyment, the produce of their own industry, with power freely to dispose of the whole of that in the manner most agreeable to themselves, as essential to the welfare and even to the continued existence of society.

After expressing his wholehearted agreement with John Locke’s justification of property rights, Hodgskin quoted a lengthy passage from Chapter V (“Of Property”) in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. (These quotations, it should be noted, contain some textual inaccuracies, but they do not affect Locke’s meaning.) Hodgskin began with these paragraphs:

“Every man,” [Locke] says, “has a property in his own person that nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands are his property. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it and joined to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For the labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is joined to—at least, where there is enough and as good left in common for others.” [Hodgskin’s emphasis.]

“He that is nourished by the acorn he picked up under an oak, or the apple he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask, then, when they began to be his? When he digested? Or when he eat, or when he boiled? Or when he brought them home? Or when he picked them up? And it is plain, that if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common, that added something to them more than nature—the common mother of all—had done, and so they became his private right.”

Most significant for the purpose of this essay is the passage quoted by Hodgskin in which Locke defended property rights in land.

“But the chief matter of property being now,” [Locke] goes on, “not the fruits of the earth and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself as that which takes and carries with it all the rest, I think it plain that property in that too is (ought to be?) acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, cultivates, and can use the products of, so much is his property. He, by his labour, does, as it were, inclose it from the common.” [Hodgskin’s emphasis and parenthetical remark.]

As we shall see, this homesteading principle (as it is frequently called) is extremely important to Hodgskin’s defense of private landownership, for it places a natural limit on how much land each person may originally acquire, and thereby makes it impossible for a person “to entrench on the right of another, or acquire to himself a property to the injury of his neighbors.” Unfortunately, this “admirable principle” has been ignored, indeed egregiously violated, by governments, which claim dominion over vast areas of land – e.g., through conquest and colonization – and then distribute that land to further the interests of rulers, not according to any legitimate principle of justice.

Thus, unlike Spencer and other opponents of private landownership, Hodgskin distinguished between just and unjust methods of acquiring titles to land, and he attributed the current inequities in landholdings to the rapacious actions of governments, not to the notion of private property in land per se. Hodgskin believed that rulers invariably use legislation to further their own interests, and that the “public good” merely functions as a cover – a ruse, in effect – for those personal interests, so he could not abide proposals for the nationalization of land. All such schemes would merely give even more power to government – the very institution that is responsible for the current injustices in landholdings. Land nationalization would exacerbate and perpetuate injustices, not remedy them.

Although Hodgskin believed that Locke’s justification for property is clear and convincing, he offered a “somewhat different” formulation – a defense of property that differs significantly from Herbert Spencer’s justification.

According to Hodgskin, man is born with wants and the means to satisfy those wants, the latter being labor (both mental and physical). Labor, which is stimulated by the desire to satisfy our wants, is the fundamental means by which we sustain our lives, and this natural connection exists independently of, and prior to, any governmental legislation. It is because we must labor in order to live, which requires that we be free to consume (or otherwise dispose of) the fruits of our labor, that we have property rights. Property is the reward that nature “bestows on labor”; to expropriate the property of another person by “force or fraud” is to deprive the victim of the basic means of sustaining his life.

As Hodgskin saw the matter, Locke’s statement that “every man has a property in his own person” is the foundation of “individuality.” The notion of that which is one’s own “cannot be disjoined from the person.” We become aware of our “personal identity” by familiarizing ourselves with our own bodies, after which we understand that “it is in fact a contradiction to say – that a man’s limbs and body do not belong to himself: for the words him, self, and his body, signify the same material thing.” (Philosophers will doubtless object that Hodgskin confuses the descriptive and normative meanings of “one’s own.” Though I think there is a credible response to this charge, my purpose here is to explain Hodgskin’s position, not to analyze it philosophically.) Hodgskin then extended his idea of individuality to the products of labor:

As we learn the existence of our own bodies from seeing and feeling them, and as we see and feel the bodies of others, we have precisely similar grounds for believing in the individuality or identity of other persons, as for believing in our own identity. The ideas expressed by the words mine and thine, as applied to the produce of labour, are simply then an extended form of the ideas of personal identity and individuality….

Thus, the natural idea of property is a mere extension of that of individuality; and it embraces all the mental as well as all the physical consequences of muscular exertion. As nature gives to labour whatever it produces – as we extend the idea of personal individuality to what is produced by every individual – not merely is a right of property established by nature, we see also that she takes means to make known the existence of that right. It is as impossible for men not to have a notion of a right of property, as it is for them to want the idea of personal identity. When either is totally absent man is insane.

We see, therefore, that by dubbing property rights “natural,” Hodgskin meant that people will naturally develop the idea of property rights as they become familiar with their own individuality and the individuality of other people. A person with no notion of this right would have no sense of self. Moreover, he would be unable to function in society, because without a sense of mine and thine a person would lack the natural impulse to defend himself and what he produces from the predatory actions of others. And without some expectation that he will reap the rewards of his own labor, a person would have little or no incentive to work in the first place.

In short, the idea of property arises with “the spontaneous growth of every mind, antecedent to all legislation.” It is therefore quite absurd to claim, as Jeremy Bentham did, that property rights have their source in governmental decrees. Property rights are a spontaneous and inevitable consequence of social existence.

Like Herbert Spencer, Thomas Hodgskin vehemently criticized Benthamite utilitarianism, according to which the greatest happiness of the greatest number should serve as the basic standard of legislation. But whereas Spencer accepted the greatest happiness as the proper goal of legislation, Hodgskin rejected the very idea of the “greatest happiness” as ultimately incoherent. Hodgskin also rejected the notion of a “social instinct” that supposedly motivates legislators, claiming instead that rulers, like everyone else, will pursue their own interests, first and foremost. Hence laws “being always intended to preserve the power of those who make them, their great and chief aim for many ages was, and still is, to enable those who are not labourers to appropriate wealth to themselves.”

In other words, the great object of law and of government has been and is, to establish and protect a violation of that natural right of property they are described in theory as being intended to guarantee. This chief purpose and principle of legislation is the parent crime, from which continually flow all the theft and fraud, all the vanity and chicanery, which torment mankind, worse than pestilence and famine.

As noted previously, Hodgskin presented his theory of property rights as an elaboration of the ideas of John Locke, viewed from a different perspective. The same basic ideas, Hodgskin astutely noted, may be analyzed and defended in various ways, but Hodgskin went far beyond Locke in some respects. Whatever the theoretical problems in Hodgskin’s account may be, his integration of the right of property with our sense of individuality is highly suggestive and deserves serious consideration.